From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, December 4, 2006
THE GREEN BAY PACKERS' RECORD OF 4-7 THROUGH WEEK 12 is fittingly ambiguous in a season this crazy, in which none of the experts have been able to predict a thing. The Packers are a little better than anyone gave them credit for being. Only the talking-head handicappers and the Hawaiian-shirt radio talkers seem disappointed that they aren't better. Or worse.
The rest of us, like Packers quarterback Brett Favre, try to take our joy in the play. The story of Favre's incomplete pass at retirement this off-season, and the upset, confusion and outrage it caused among so many strangers, has, for the most part, come and gone. But that story will return, told in the same unforgiving way, in the next season or the next or the next. Because the story of Favre's end was never just about him. It is about us.
We need our heroes and household gods forever young, forever strong, forever smart or forever beautiful. Because we ourselves are not. The end of an elite athlete's career at 25 or 35 or 40 mirrors too perfectly the diminishments and compromises we will see all too well in ourselves at 55 or 65 or 70. The aches and pains and confusion, the missteps, the injury and illness and loss, the memories flown and the flowering of cowardice in the face of uncertainty, all the greatness so far behind you.
Young poets mock the inexorable unwinding of time, until, if they're lucky, they become old poets. Old poets are smart enough to mock only themselves.
Because maybe worse than bad eyes, bad ears, bad back, bad hair, bad heart, is bad faith. Doubt. The delicate stress fracture of the will and the hairline crack along the backbone. This is how you calibrate your own descent, in the sad calculus of who you once were but can never be again.
Which is why the images of Johnny Unitas at the end, or Joe Namath, or Muhammad Ali, or Joe Louis, or any of hundreds and hundreds of others, were too much for us. Not because we couldn't muster sufficient sympathy, but because we had altogether too much empathy. To see their sad end warned us too vividly of our own.
There will come a time when Brett Favre can no longer play. This is not that time. But at the end of this season—or the next or the next—he will step away at last, having earned the peace of a perpetual off-season.
But until that moment, Brett Favre will be throwing, in a way, for us all. Throwing hope forward, in a single clean step or with a motion as rushed and off-balance as the rest of us. Banking on the past while trying to read a second into his future, drilling clean arcs on our behalf into the weakening light and the rising odds, every throw a moment for hope, a defiant line, bright in the air, against the infinite and inevitable.